It was four years ago that Alex Pollock delivered a breakthrough performance as a Vermont slacker in Company One’s production of Annie Baker’s “The Aliens,’’ establishing himself as a quirky force in Boston-area theater.
“The Aliens’’ represented a perfect marriage of actor and writer. It was immediately apparent that Pollock, like Baker, is an idiosyncratic original, with a knack for portraying jittery, soulful misfits. The actor subsequently drew on that talent in Chekhov’s “The Seagull’’ and David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones’’ (both at Harbor Stage Company), Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth’’ (at Gloucester Stage Company), and Steven Barkhimer’s “Windowmen’’ (at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre).
Now Pollock is back at Company One Theatre (the troupe recently expanded its name) for another Baker play, “The Flick,’’ and once again he pulls you in with an intensely compelling portrayal of a twitchy outcast whose every word and gesture suggest that he is broken on the inside.
This time Pollock is playing Sam, a 35-year-old employee in a fading Central Massachusetts moviehouse who is drifting through his days, his head shaved beneath the Red Sox cap he often wears backward, hoping but not really expecting his life will take some kind of shape.
Rows of movie theater seats face the audience in “The Flick,’’ whose set design is by the ubiquitous Cristina Todesco (she also designed “The Aliens’’). High up on a rear wall is a glassed-in projection booth. Sam is besotted with the occupant of that booth, Rose, a projectionist portrayed by Brenna Fitzgerald, though it takes a while for him to screw up the courage to tell her so. Meanwhile, Sam is adjusting to the presence of Avery, a new hire, played by Peter Andersen, whose encyclopedic knowledge of film is matched by his firm opinions on the art form; for instance, he contends there has been no great American film in the past decade. Grungy though it is, Avery appears to see the single-screen movie theater, with its 35-millimeter projector, as a bulwark against the onslaught of digital cinema. But there are signs its owner might sell it to a chain.
Company One Theatre artistic director Shawn LaCount, who directed “The Aliens,’’ is at the helm for the New England premiere of “The Flick,’’ and LaCount again demonstrates a sure touch with the rhythms of Baker’s dialogue, which is remarkably expressive beneath its disjointed surface.
The director is wholly in tune with the quizzical sensibility of a playwright whose script uses the word “weird’’ dozens of times, either in dialogue or as part of her stage directions. LaCount captures the other dimensions of this beguiling play, too: the emotional arc half-hidden within Baker’s seeming shapelessness; the loneliness that is always there, crowding in on Baker’s characters from the edges; the way “The Flick’’ slides from funny to wrenching and back again.
Caveat emptor, though: “The Flick’’ requires, and sometimes tries, your patience. At three hours, the play is longer than it needs to be.
But any restlessness you feel is likely to pale next to the substantial rewards delivered by Baker, an Amherst native. Perhaps no playwright since Pinter has deployed silence more skillfully than Baker does, and she has a corresponding knack for communicating feelings, meaning, and states of mind in broken half-sentences. Sometimes her characters will linger over a word, savoring its strangeness, as when Sam, battling an mysterious rash, repeats “Lesions?’’ At moments like that, Pollock is a virtuoso of frustration; when Sam and Avery are cleaning the theater aisles and Sam asks “Who brings pudding into a movie theater?’’, it’s both hilarious and a poignant cri de coeur from a man who feels himself thwarted at every turn.
Part of what makes this production so satisfying is that Fitzgerald and Andersen very nearly match Pollock stride for stride. Fitzgerald is an insouciant, utterly natural delight as Rose. If you saw this actress a couple of years ago in “44 Plays for 44 Presidents’’ at Bad Habit Productions, you’re aware of her high energy level, but that still might not prepare you for Fitzgerald’s explosive dance sequence down the aisles of the make-believe movie theater in “The Flick.’’ But Fitzgerald also captures Rose’s vulnerability, even fear, when she is threatened with the loss of her job.
Andersen is equally strong as Avery. The actor slowly reveals the layers beneath Avery’s play-it-safe demeanor until we understand that the character’s outward rigidity and certitude is a kind of psychological camouflage.
He’s trying to figure out how to strike the right emotional balance, as are Sam and Rose and, for that matter, numerous characters in other Baker plays, from “The Aliens’’ to “Body Awareness’’ to “Circle Mirror Transformation.’’ Like movie watchers, they’re in the dark, looking toward the light.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org